Grey Mask

grey maskPatricia Wentworth’s first Miss Silver mystery doesn’t have nearly as much to do with Miss Silver as I’d have liked. The mystery is a nicely­-tangled (if slightly loosely­-plotted) Golden Age affair of blackmail, mistaken identity, frivolous flappers, a plump inheritance, at least four attempted murders, star­-crossed romance, and an evil villain in disguise. It is wonderfully pleasant to read. But among all the schemes that get us to the satisfying conclusion, among all the sparkling, fizzy characters, there’s a quietly-­knitting private detective — and I could have done with a bit more of her.

The book begins with Charles. Charles has just returned from a tempestuous trip around the world, trying to forget Margaret, the girl who jilted him on the very eve of their wedding. Fortunately (or, I suppose, unfortunately), when he returns to his home, he finds it not as empty as it should be: there are, improbably, a group of masked conspirators there, plotting to kill an heiress if a certificate should appear to verify her claim to the money. Why does Charles not spring out among them, crying, “Not cricket!” (This is that sort of book.) Why doesn’t he rush to the police? I will let you find out those shocking details.

What does Charles opt to do? Well, among other things, he gets the address of a certain Miss Silver, a retired governess in whom people are apt to confide. He doesn’t trust her at first (of course not — who would — a mere woman), but she soon proves not only to have powers of observation far beyond the usual, but connections in the criminal world and a piercing comprehension of human behavior that go oddly with her tea and woolly knitting. Despite Charles’s inability to trust Miss Silver with all the details of the case, she is there at the finish, gentle and indefatigable and not the least bit woolly. She reminded me a bitof Dorothy Sayers’s Katherine Climpson. What a pair they would make! In general, though, the style of this book was not a bit like Sayers, or like Christie either (as the inevitable comparison with Miss Marple would imply.) It was much less a character study than the former, and much less a jigsaw-puzzle than the latter.

I found this mystery completely enjoyable, even if it did have a few holes in the plot and even if it wasn’t quite silvery enough for me. I look forward to reading more of these books, in the firm hope of seeing more of the detective.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 3 Comments

Blogging Event: A Day in the Life

Day-in-the-Life-EventOne fun thing about blogging is the way we get a peek at other people’s lives—and get to share bits and pieces of our own. In my case, I usually share glimpses of my own life through discussing what I’m reading and, sometimes, how my life affects my thoughts on my reading. But when I saw Trish at Love, Laughter, Insanity encouraging bloggers to share a record of our day with each other, I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

I decided to keep a record of my activities this past Tuesday. I assumed it would be a fairly typical day, but as you’ll see, my day didn’t go precisely as planned.

6:00 am: Alarm goes off. I hit snooze as usual. Anya the cat jumps onto the bed to see if I’m getting up. She stops by a few more times until I decide to get up. I usually get out of bed at 6:20 or 6:30. Today, it was 6:30.

Anya usually digs in to breakfast right way, but she's slow about finishing.

Anya usually digs in to breakfast right way, but she’s slow about finishing.

6:30 am: Up and out of bed. First order of business is making coffee and feeding the cat. I got Anya in late December, and I initially had a lot of trouble finding a food that she liked and that agreed with her. Today she’s having Nature’s Variety Instinct Limited Ingredient Turkey. It’s not her favorite, but she will eat it with no ill effects later. So far, that and Weruva chicken varieties have been my best choices. She loves dry food, but the only dry food that doesn’t cause litter box problems later is Spot’s Stew. I feed it once in a while as a treat.

I get dressed while the coffee is brewing. I keep things simple in my work attire. Today it’s a dress from Gwynnie Bee with brown tights and black ankle boots. Make-up is just a little mascara and lip gloss. I’m lazy about make-up and hair and rarely spend more than a couple of minutes on it. I’ve been putting my hair up at night, which gives it some natural wave, and as I’m getting older it holds wave better than it used to.

Failing bread machine = Funny-looking toast

Failing bread machine = Funny-looking toast

7:00-ish. Breakfast is coffee and applesauce oatmeal toast with Trader Joe’s Fig Butter. I made the bread in my bread machine, which is on its last legs and making weird looking loaves. I got the machine 5 or 6 years ago at Goodwill for $10, so I’m not mad about it, but I’m not excited about buying another one, even though I love having an easy way to make bread.

While eating breakfast, I check e-mail, read blogs, and look at Twitter. I keep wanting to break this habit, but the truth is that breakfast is a good time for this stuff, and it keeps me from spending too much time on it at work. I’d still like to do a morning meditation instead (or in addition?). Today, I exchange e-mails with a few blogging friends and make the pleasant discovery that two of them will most likely be in DC for a visit at the same time. One of the great things about living in this area is that it’s one people tend to visit!

7:30-ish. Off to work. I listen to a podcast on the way, but I forgot to make note of which one.

Tea and Email (287x500)

Morning tea and e-mail

8:00-ish. Arrival at work. I’m the first person in my unit to arrive today, which isn’t unusual but not something I can count on. I’m a magazine editor and we’re approaching a May deadline, so I quickly check a couple of pages to hand off to our designer before settling in fully. Then, I make a cup of tea and get started.

Today is a slow day because we just had a conference, and a lot of people are out. My main goals for the day are to prepare the ads for our May issue and read unsolicited manuscripts for upcoming issues. I get the ads done quickly, but the stack of manuscripts is pretty high and could take a good chunk of the day. I check my e-mail and get to work.

11:30-ish: Not much progress on the manuscripts. I had a small bunch of grapes as a mid-morning snack to keep my energy up, but I’ve got a pounding headache, which makes it harder to concentrate on manuscript reading. At least it’s reasonably quiet today. Time for a lunch break.

12:45-ish: As I was warming up my leftover broccoli cheddar casserole for lunch, my boss arrived. My co-workers and I all wanted to hear about our conference, which she attended this weekend, so we had an impromptu meeting, and I had my lunch there. A coworker was having a birthday, so we had cake for her, too.

When I get back to my desk, corrected pages are waiting for me, so I look those over before returning to manuscript reading.

But first some Tylenol for this stupid headache. It had better go away by evening because I really want to go to water aerobics, and it’s no fun with a headache.

My view for the afternoon

My view for the afternoon

1:45: Still headache-y. Decided I need some Diet Dr. Pepper and Sun Chips.

4:00: Headache is exponentially worse. This is one where even my hair hurts. Managed to read a few more manuscripts, but now it’s just about time to go home. I consider going to the grocery store to pick up something to eat for dinner, since I won’t feel like preparing anything, but I decide I can get by with what I have. The noise and lights of the grocery store seem like more than I can deal with.

Sink (500x310)

Whhhhhyyyyyy? (Yes, I know the answer to that, but still…)

4:45: Home. Anya greets me with loud meows. She didn’t eat all the food I left out this morning, so I need to send it down the disposal. But the sink is full of dishes, and the dishwasher is still full. Every time, I promise myself I’ll unload the dishwasher right away, and I never do it. So the sink fill up, and I get annoyed with myself. Guess I’ll take care of it now, despite the headache.

5:30: Dishes are taken care of, Anya is fed, and I’m noodling around on the computer. Usually on Tuesday, I go to water aerobics. I had a persistent sinus and ear infection that kept me away several weeks last month, so I’ve been really wanting to get back into the twice-weekly routine. But loud music and jumping seem like a bad plan tonight. Instead, it will have to be pajamas and silence. Dinner is a bowl of cereal because it takes little effort. I read some blogs and Twitter before reading more of Sputnik Caledonia by Andrew Crumey. I’m having some reservations about the story, but I’m curious to see where it’s going.

9:00-ish: I totally fall down the comments rabbit hole of reliving Every Argument About Buffy on the Internet, From 1998 Until Now over at The Toast (Season 6 was awesome in all its terribleness, and it doesn’t even need Once More with Feeling to Be Awesome. [Have I mentioned that I like my fiction dark?] Also, Oz is the awesomest boyfriend of all the boyfriends, and it’s no wonder Willow decided she was done with boys because when it comes to boys she could do no better than Oz because there is no better than Oz.)

A typical Anya pose while I'm reading

A typical Anya pose while I’m reading

After all that, I did read some more of my book, but Anya is acting hungry, so I put some food in her treat ball and get the entertainment of watching her get it out. (If I put it in her bowl, she will inhale it. This slows her down and gives her some exercise—plus, it’s entertaining.) After that, more reading.

10:30-ish: Time for bed. Hoping to sleep the headache off entirely.

The good news is that I did sleep the headache away! But my evening was supremely lazy. At least the dishes got put away! (And there’s a dishwasher full waiting for me now. Will I wait until the sink is full again? Probably.)

Posted in Uncategorized | 38 Comments

Picnic at Hanging Rock

picnicTragedy has long fingers that often stretch far beyond those immediately affected by it. Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel explores how those fingers touch a community when three girls disappear while on a St. Valentine’s Day picnic in 1900 at the Hanging Rock in Victoria, Australia. Four girls, all students at a private boarding school called Appleyard College, wander off together toward the rock after their picnic. One girl returns, screaming in terror, but the others seem to have vanished without a trace. In addition, their eccentric math teacher, last seen dozing in the sun, is also gone.

Although the disappearance is essential to the plot, the novel isn’t particularly concerned with the reason for the disappearance. There are hints of something supernatural going on, but nothing is pinned down. Lindsay’s original draft of the novel did explain their disappearance, but that final chapter was not included in the original publication. It was later published under the title The Secret of Hanging Rock. I found the text online and found the solution unsatisfying, but I didn’t find the mystery the most interesting thing about the novel—or, to put it more clearly, I didn’t find the solving of the mystery the most interesting thing about the novel.

There is an interesting mystery here, but that mystery has more to do with the pivot points of life, the moments everything changes. For so many people, the girls’ disappearance was just such a pivot point. The effects are not necessarily felt immediately, but they are felt, as Lindsay notes at about halfway through the novel:

The reader taking a bird’s eye view of events since the picnic will have noted how various individuals on its outer circumference have somehow become involved in the spreading pattern: Mrs Valange, Reg Lumley, Monsieur Louis Montpelier, Minnie and Tom—all of whose lives have already been disrupted, sometimes violently. So too have the lives of innumerable lesser fry—spiders, mice, beetles—whose scuttlings, burrowings and terrified retreats are comparable, if on a smaller scale. At Appleyard College, out of a clear sky, from the moment the first rays of light had fired the dahlias on the morning of Saint Valentine’s Day, and the Boarders, Waking early, had begun the innocent interchange of cards and favours, the pattern had begun to form. Until now, on the evening of Friday the thirteenth of March, it was still spreading; still fanning out in depth and intensity, still incomplete. On the lower levels of Mount Macedon it continued to spread, though in gayer colours, to the upper slopes, where the inhabitants of Lake View, unaware of their allotted places in the general scheme of joy and sorrow, light and shade, went about their personal affairs as usual, unconsciously weaving and interweaving the individual threads of their private lives into the complex tapestry of the whole.

Some of the consequences are predictable. The headmistress of the school finds herself losing students and facing financial ruin after the tragedy. A man who takes an active role in the search for the girls is rewarded for his efforts. But other effects seem almost as mysterious as the initial disappearance, even as their origins can be clearly traced to that event. Life can be explained, but only up to a point. And what happens to us cannot ever be entirely under our control, if only because we cannot control other people, and their actions affect us.

Also striking in this book were the languid quality of the prose and pacing. You might imagine that a novel about disappearing girls would feel like a thriller, but that’s not the case here at all. (Another reason that the disappearance and the reason for it seem beside the point.) Lindsay spends far more time on setting scenes and creating atmosphere than on pushing the plot. Things happen but they happen in between the more important moments of reflection and dreaming, almost as if the whole world is still caught up in the picnic atmosphere:

Hunger satisfied and the unwonted delicacies enjoyed to the last morsel, the cups and plates rinsed at the pool, they settled down to amuse themselves for the remainder of the afternoon. Some wandered off in twos and threes, under strict injunctions not to stray out of sight of the drag; others, drugged with food and sunshine, dozed and dreamed.

After the picnic, amusement is no longer possible for many of the characters, but some do still seem to be dozing and dreaming—or wishing they were. They’re stuck at the Hanging Rock, whether good or bad, its power is with them still.

There was a very good film made of this book in 1975, directed by Peter Weir. I saw the film years ago, and, from what I remember, it captures the atmosphere of the book quite well.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 25 Comments

Solar Storms

solar stormsI read Linda Hogan’s novel Solar Storms back in January, and since it’s now March, I thought about not writing a review for it at all. But it made such an impression on me, I decided that I would write something about it — perhaps not a review (insofar as what I write can be called reviews, anyway), but some of the things that make this book so striking and beautiful.

At the beginning of the novel, the narrator, Angela, is coming north — far north — to the town of Adam’s Rib on Tinselman’s Ferry. She was adopted away from her tribe and her reservation when she was a tiny girl, because her mother brutally abused her. Now, as a teenager, she is returning to the women who love her and want her back: her aunt Agnes, her grandmother Dora-Rouge, and the healer, Bush, who couldn’t heal Angela’s mother.

Angela is skeptical at first. She has to start at the beginning, to understand a completely different way of knowing the world. People don’t tell the same stories, want the same things out of life, speak the same way, move at the same pace. But she learns about her people, and she learns about the land she lives on: the plants, the animals, the water, the sky, the air. Her name changes, from Angela to Angel to Maniki; she learns the secret names of the world around her, too.

Perhaps most importantly, in those first few months, Angela learns about her own history and fate. She is badly scarred — a result of her mother’s abuse — and until she can come to terms with that deep rejection, she can’t learn more. Broken mirrors recur in the text: first, a mirror Angela breaks on purpose, out of anger at her ugliness, and then one she drops accidentally:

One day I dropped the mirror and it broke into many pieces. For a while I kept these, looking only at parts of myself at a time. Then I had no choice but to imagine myself, along with the parts and fragments of stories, as if it all was part of a great brokenness moving, trying to move, toward wholeness — a leg, an arm, a putting together, the way Bush put together the animal bones.

This vision of herself as a broken reflection moving toward wholeness is echoed in the way Angela learns to see the land. Just as her mother’s destructive force scarred Angela and left her with permanent changes, the land of Tinselman’s Ferry and further north has been permanently damaged by roads, dams, electricity and floods. Is healing possible out of such brokenness, such mistrust, such scarring?

The first half of Solar Storms, as I said, is given to Angela’s return to her family and to her land. The second half is a strange, epic voyage. Angela, Agnes, Dora-Rouge and Bush receive word that a tribe to the north of them — the Fat-Eaters — have been threatened with a dam that will flood their lands. This will not only force them to move, it will destroy the heritage of the land itself: the plants, the grazing of the animals, the nesting places of birds. The women — all of them quite elderly except for Angela — decide to kayak north to help in the protest against the dam. Their long, arduous trip and the apparently-hopeless protest against white people determined to make a profit and install a hydroelectric dam show Angela the consequences of the wisdom she’s learned: knowing about water, land, and loss are infinitely valuable, but they make her vulnerable to still more loss. After losing her mother, is she prepared to lose her greater mother, the scarred and beleaguered land?

One thing that’s particularly interesting about the protest itself is that this book takes place during the Vietnam War. The young men — boys, really — that Angela and the other members of the tribe are protesting against are there because they are not in Vietnam. Linda Hogan balances the irony beautifully: they are here, ignorant of thousands of years of history of this land, because they are not there, ignorant of thousands of years of history of that land. Hmmm. Perhaps some listening is in order, some time or other; perhaps it would be possible not always to start fresh at zero with every new set of people?

Still, with all the weight, with all the inheritance of pain and loss that this book bears, it isn’t depressing. (Roger Ebert notoriously said that all bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.) There’s wry humor here:

One soft morning, Dora-Rouge sat in her white chair on “the front line.” The trees gave off a perfume in the heat. The air was still and heavy. It was going to be a warm day. But there was a tension to things. I felt anxious and I didn’t know why. Aurora also seemed disturbed. I stood a short distance away from Dora-Rouge, speaking with Bush, and I heard a young policeman say, “Oh, shit. It’s one of those old ladies again.” He trained the gun on Dora-Rouge, set his sight as if to scare her, took aim.

I ran toward him. “No!”

But Dora-Rouge looked right at him and said, “I’m not that old.”

There’s a complex understanding of how love strengthens us to meet even the most painful challenges. There’s wolverine, a trickster. There’s new life, and romance, and a sense that the land — and therefore its people — however scarred, is beautiful and whole.

This book was gracefully written, from a perspective I don’t see often. Have you read any of her other work? She is a poet as well as a novelist, and I’d love to hear about anything she’s written.

Posted in Fiction | 1 Comment

The China Governess

ChinaGovernessJulia and Timothy are determined to get married, despite her father’s objections. But Timothy wants to wait until he can figure out the secret behind his parentage. He was brought to the Kinnit home as a baby as London was being evacuated during World War II and the Kinnits were taking in evacuees. The woman who brought him left, and the Kinnits made him one of their own, never learning where he came from.

The one piece of information about Timothy’s origin connects him to Turk Street, once known as “the wickedest street in London.” As the book opens, the East End neighborhood is being restored, but not without complications. Most recently, a burglar has broken into and torn apart a new flat, leaving nothing in it intact. The damage was so severe and malicious that one of the flat’s owners died of the shock.

This late Albert Campion novel by Margery Allingham doesn’t include much of Campion himself, and his role in solving the crime is fairly minor. He seems mostly to serve as someone for the primary players to talk to, bringing them together so they can make connections they might not have noted on their own. Much of the plot really involves people making connections, noticing small resemblances and unlikely coincidences.

Connections are also an important thematic element, as biological and social connections are behind much of the conflict in the book. How important are those biological connections? Is it possible to escape a dark family legacy? Issues of class come into play here, as Timothy has been adopted into an upper-class family but may come from a less respectable home. But respectability isn’t just about money, as the Kinnits have dark secrets in their past.

On the whole, this mystery is rather bland compared to many of Allingham’s other books. It doesn’t have the madcap silliness of the early books, and it doesn’t have the atmosphere of The Tiger in the Smoke. Campion has little to do, and although Lugg is present as his usual entertaining self, Amanda is entirely absent (always a shame). The ending, however, is well done. The way Allingham has her characters react to the truth is surprising and rather touching. Detective stories are so often focused on using the truth to set everything to rights, but sometimes the truth makes things worse. The way the characters work out how to deal with their old bonds after uncovering new information about their pasts is probably the part of the book that will stick with me most.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 6 Comments

Castle in the Air for #DWJMarch

castle-in-the-air-by-diana-wynne-jonesI’ve been flipping through my copy of Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones to find a funny part to share with you all, but I’m going to have to ask you to take my word for it that this is a very funny book. It’s just that the humor is almost based on context or accumulation of effect. Surely you can imagine how hilarious it is to watch a soldier coo over a mama cat and her kitten as his exasperated travel companion is just trying to get stuff done. But before that, there’s a comical bargaining scene in which the novel’s protagonist, Abdullah, tries to pay as little as possible for a threadbare magic carpet. And then there’s Abdullah’s tendency to get his way by offering the most profuse and ridiculous compliments imaginable—“O splendor of lilac vapors” or “O puce pearl of magic.” And we can’t forget his attempts to convince a petulant genie to grant his promised wishes. (Oh, the genie!)

This book tells the story of Abdullah, a carpet seller who lives in Zanzib, daydreaming that he’s really a lost prince destined to marry a beautiful princess. When a magic carpet whisks him away to a lush garden, he meets a lovely and clever princess named Flower-in-the-Night, and it looks like at least one part of his daydream may well come true because Flower-in-the-Night is determined to marry Abdullah, regardless of what her father might think. In fact, when Abdullah notes that her father may look down on his lowly origins, she drums her fingers angrily and says, “You speak as if it is my father who intends to marry you!”

Flower-in-the-Night refuses to put up with any ridiculous rules about who can marry whom, but when a djinn turns up and carries her away, the secret wedding plans must come to an end, as Abdullah figures out how to find and rescue her.

This book is a sequel to Howl’s Moving Castle, but the story stands almost entirely on its own. The principal characters from Howl’s don’t appear until near the end, and although their appearance is entirely delightful—and makes the whole book seem even better in retrospect—you don’t need to have read the earlier novel to enjoy this one. Knowing Howl, Sophie, and Calcifer will enhance your appreciation of the book’s final chapters, though, so I suggest reading Howl’s first if you can. (I want so much to talk about how they’re used in this book, but I don’t want to say too much here. If you’ve read it, let’s chat in the comments about that!)

The plot of Castle in the Air is full of twists and turns and unexpected surprises, which is typical of Jones’s books—at least the few that I’ve read. But this may be the first of her books in which I didn’t feel rather lost at the conclusion, so that’s a plus! I didn’t find as much depth in the relationships among the characters as in Howl’s or Fire and Hemlockbut that’s mostly due to the nature of the story. These people are mostly new to each other and don’t spend years building their connections. But they are great fun to watch.

In truth, the main thing I have to say about this book is that it is solidly fun. I had a great time with these people, and although I wasn’t convinced by the ending of Howl’s, I found that I was thrilled to see Howl and Sophie together again. This book just made me happy.

I read this for the DWJMarch hosted by Kristen at We Be Reading. I chose it because it’s the book I had on hand, but it fits in rather well with the month’s theme of Ladies and Lasses of DWJ because of the way she has plays around with our usual notions of what fictional princesses are like. In the world of this novel, princesses are the most treasured of brides, treated as property to be married to the most advantageous suitor or whisked away by the most resourceful djinn. Some of the best scenes in the novel involve a castle full of princesses:

The new arrivals were all female, and they all looked extremely displeased; but when you had said that, you seemed to have said the only two things they had in common. They stood in a row, thirty or so of them, glaring accusingly at the two djinns, and they were tall, short, stout, skinny, young and old, and of every color the human race produces. Abdullah’s eyes scudded along the row in amazement. … They ranged from a tiny, frail, yellow princess nearest to him, to an elderly, bent princess in the mid-distance. And they were wearing every possible kind of clothing, from a ball dress to tweeds.

These princesses are wonderful, each bringing her own gifts to helping them get free. These women and girls are far from property. They have their own minds, and they will stand by them. A few stand out more than others, but—as a group—they provide a wonderful model of how women of all shapes, sizes, ages, races, and temperaments are valuable for themselves, not for some arbitrary status given to them. It’s their personalities that makes these princesses into real treasures.

Posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 8 Comments

Book Blogger Buddies

The first two months of 2015 brought a lot of negative energy to some parts of the book blogosphere. Talk of plagiarism, burnout, and bloggers shutting their doors has made the community feel a little shaky—never mind that the growth of book blogging means that the community is also becoming increasingly fragmented. A recent twitter conversation about the issues led a group of us to respond to this challenging climate by re-launching the Book Blogger Buddy System.

Colorful books next to a modern laptopThe Book Blogger Buddy System, as originally launched in October 2012, was designed to foster direct connections and mutually supportive relationships between bloggers by playing matchmaker. When the program was originally launched, I was paired with Jeanne of Necromancy Never Pays, and we had some great conversations about our blogs and how we might improve them. Buddy System 2.0 will bring back opportunities for similar conversations, with a focus on creating mentor/protege matches between more- and less-experienced bloggers.

The Book Blogger Buddy System’s new home on Tumblr reflects a new emphasis on sharing experience and expertise. It’s a Q&A forum where you can submit questions about any and all aspects of book blogging–critical, technical, social, ethical–and get thoughtful, knowledgeable answers and advice and share your own ideas in the comments. We hope it will be a place where newer bloggers can find guidance from blogging vets, and where vets can trade information with each other.

Come visit the Book Blogger Buddy System…and bring your blogging questions!

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

A Little Life

A Little LifeWhen I read reviews in which people complain that a book is too dark, I usually write that complaint off with a “too dark for you maybe.” Not many books are too dark for me. My favorite author, after all, is Thomas Hardy, and I can’t decide whether my favorite of his books is Jude the Obscure or Tess of the d’Urbervilles, both fairly non-stop misery fests. Well, I’ve found a book that’s too dark for me. The misery rained down on the main character in this novel by Hanya Yanagihara got so extreme that I stopped being able to take it seriously. If Thomas Hardy’s Jude had additional children who poisoned each other after what happened to his first three children, you might start getting close to the misery inflicted on Yanagihara’s Jude. But you’d need to also throw in a half-dozen sexual assaults as well, many of them committed by monks because of course they are.

This book is getting lots of advance praise, but I really didn’t like it much. At times, I outright hated it. Why did I finish it? It’s 735 pages long! That’s a lot of time for a book I sort of hated. For much of the book, I was hoping things would turn around. I loved Yanagihara’s debut, The People in the Trees, and there were things I liked about this. The fact that it appeared initially to be a story of four very close college friends going through their adult lives together was the first thing that I liked. I’m still extremely close to my three best college friends (of whom Jenny is one), and recent events touching one of these friends has shown just how important these long-time friendships are, how we come to feel each other’s pain and admire each other’s strengths. Friendships have a significant effect on us, but so often in fiction, they take a backseat to family and romantic relationships.

Eventually, though, the book turns from being a story of a four-way friendship—that of Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB—and comes to focus on the sufferings of a single character, Jude. Jude’s background is a mystery to his friends. They know he’s suffered an injury involving a car that made walking difficult and made him prone to getting sores on his legs. Over time, they learn that he deals with trauma by cutting himself, so much that he’s never seen without long sleeves on. He has no family, avoids all romantic relationships, will not discuss sex, and refuses to seek any sort of psychological help, relying on his doctor friend Andy to bandage his wounds and treat his infections.

Over the course of the novel, we learn of Jude’s past traumas and watch their aftereffects unspool in the present. The story of his past is indeed harrowing, involving serious abuse of the type that does happen to many young people today. But the extreme nature of the abuse turns it into almost a cartoon. Every monk at the monastery where he was raised beats him or rapes him or both—and tells him he’s to blame because of something he did as a baby. All the adults at the home he ends up at are abusive. Every man he hitches a ride with wants sex. His first real boyfriend isn’t just mean about his injuries—he also throws him down the stairs. It’s too much.

On top of that, there’s watching Jude manage his psychological pain by cutting himself, again and again over more than 20 years, to the point that there’s no unscarred flesh left to cut. The people closest to him know about it, but the only thing they ever do is give him stern talkings to and remove his hidden cache of razor blades. To be clear, I don’t believe Jude’s friends can or necessarily even should force him to get help, and getting help for mental illness can be complex and scary, but I also couldn’t believe they would stand by and watch for more than 20 years. The correct course would be difficult to discern, it’s true, but we rarely see anyone seriously grappling with the difficulty. We’re told again and again and again how much Jude hates himself and how he feels he deserves to suffer. We’re told that his friends are sad and don’t know what to do. The struggle is understandable, but there’s no deep dive into just how complicated it is to know what to do. Instead, we get the same, fairly shallow debate repeated ad nauseam.

I have other, smaller complaints, such as the fact that, despite all the tragedy, the novel seems out of touch with how the world works for ordinary people. After a few initial lean years, these friends all become very successful and very rich, able to own multiple homes and travel anywhere. This seems unlikely. I was also disappointed at first that what appeared to be a story about close friendship turned into a story of romantic love, although I grew to find that romance genuinely moving and one of the novel’s brighter spots. Plus, some of the problems that needed addressing wouldn’t have worked in a different relationship. I just want more stories focused on intimate friendships, and I was hoping this would be one.

A recent piece in Vogue reveals that this novel was written over 18 months and that Yangihara’s editor wanted her to cut it by a third, which she refused to do. People in the Trees, in contrast, took 18 years and isn’t quite 500 pages long. This newer book feels both knocked together and bloated. Is it a story about friendship? About one man’s trauma? About how to deal others’ pain? About doomed love? All of these things could fit in a single novel, but one of them needs to be the core idea, around which everything else coalesces. It’s not clear which of these is supposed to be the core idea.

I kept reading this book even after I realized I wasn’t enjoying it because I hoped it would turn around. When I realized it wouldn’t, I’d gotten to a point where I was grimly fascinated by it. But it was the fascination of watching a disaster, wondering how bad it will get. Despite its length, it does read quickly. I only seriously considered putting it aside once, when a violent scene hit a little too close to home for me.

This book, which is being published March 10, has been getting near-universal advance praise among critics and bloggers, so my view is certainly a minority one. So far, only Other Jenny at Reading the End has had a similarly negative reaction to mine. I’ll be curious to see if more detractors emerge as the book reaches the wider reading public. I’m finding the accolades slightly bewildering, but I stand by my minority view. Your view, however, might be different.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration through Netgalley.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 23 Comments

Every Man Dies Alone

every man dies aloneHans Fallada, the author of Every Man Dies Alone, refused to join the Party during the Nazi rise to power, and was denounced by his neighbors for anti-Nazi sympathies. But he opted not to leave Germany during the war. Instead, he continued to write his novel The Drinker — and to drink so much himself that he had an alcohol-fueled nervous breakdown that landed him in an insane asylum. After the war, he wrote this novel, but died of a morphine overdose in 1947, just before it was published.

This book is about Germany under the Germans. It centers around an older couple in Berlin, Otto and Anna Quangel, who, after the death of their son, decide to engage in a quiet kind of resistance: they go around the city dropping postcards on which they’ve written anti-Nazi sentiments. Each postcard puts them in danger, and each one is a triumph: someone will read it, they think, and pass it on, and soon the city will be humming with the good news that others want change, too.

In reality, the resistance goes nowhere. The couple is so intentionally isolated that they don’t realize it, but when someone picks a postcard up, they go straight to the Gestapo to report it, terrified they’ll be accused of writing it themselves. The couple is surrounded by frightened people who are trying to blend into the woodwork, people who are trying to take full advantage of the new regime, and cynical snitches trying to take advantage even of those who are in power.

Fallada’s portrait of Nazi Berlin is rich and detailed. The policeman, Escherich, who’s put in charge of the mysterious postcard-dropper has a map on his wall, with little flag-pins stuck in where each postcard was found. The book is like this: tiny vivid anecdotes arising all over the city — but clustered around the Quangels. There’s a couple who fall in love when they’re in a disastrously ill-suited Communist cell, and they try to escape to a smaller suburb for a peaceful life, with equally disastrous results. There’s Enno, who just wants to shirk working life and live in peace, preferably off the backs of vulnerable women, but his penchant for the good life gets him in more trouble than he would have believed possible. There’s a family whose membership in the Party should set them up for great things, but only the sharp-eyed son, a blowhard in the Hitler Youth, really seems to be making a go of it. There’s a Jewish woman whose husband is in jail, and who is terrified to go out of her apartment. And on and on and on, their lives brushing elbows as lives do in the city, and eventually intertwining.

The portrait is morally rich as well. Fallada shows a city in which everyone lives in such deep fear and self-righteousness that denunciation to the Gestapo is a daily occurrence. There’s a scene in which Escherich comes to announce a corrupt, falsified “lead” in the case to his superior — something his superior had demanded lest he be kicked off the case — and we watch as Escherich is tormented for it, forced to bow to his superior’s monstrous whims. Even those in power are often powerless.

When it comes to the Quangels’ act of resistance, I had a similar reaction at first to Anna Quangel’s.

My God, what had this man come up with! She had had great deeds in mind (and been afraid of them at the same time): an attempt to assassinate the Führer, or at the very least some active struggle against the Party and its officials. And what was he proposing? Nothing at all, something so ridiculously small, something so absolutely in his character, something discreet, out of the way, something that wouldn’t interfere with his peace and quiet.

But Otto Quangel won’t back down:

He stopped his rummaging, and still standing there stooped, he turned his head to his wife. “Whether it’s big or small, Anna,” he said, “if they get wind of it, it’ll cost us our lives…” […] He might be right: whether their act was big or small, no one could risk more than his life. Each according to his strength and abilities, but the main thing was, you fought back.

The structure of the book makes clear that this is indeed the main thing. It’s not a surprise, sprung on us at the end, that the Quangels’ resistance didn’t cause an overthrow of the Nazi regime; we know that from history. Their resistance wasn’t even as articulate or as widely-spread as the White Rose group, who were only college students. But the effectiveness of the resistance — how many people reached, how many trains sabotaged, how many Jews saved — isn’t the point. The point is about the person resisting. Every man (or woman) dies alone. Do you still have your soul, or not? This is a book about the price people are willing to pay to remain decent. Under a dictatorship, sometimes the price is everything — and sometimes, as Fallada wryly points out, you’ll pay that price anyway, but you’ll pay it for your indecency. Make your choices.

I found this book extraordinary. I moved through it as rapidly as if it were light entertainment rather than a novel of serious moral weight. The translation, by Michael Hofmann, is terrific. I wanted to stay up late and find out if the widow Hetty Haberle would take Enno back into her pet shop out of loneliness or fear; if anyone would dare to help the Jewish housewife; what Escherich would do next to find the Quangels on his little, flag-bitten map. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, inspired by a real-life Gestapo file and written by someone who lived it. Go fascinate yourself.

Posted in Fiction | 12 Comments

7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess

7“What sorts of things do you read?” people ask me, when they find out that reading is almost my only hobby. “Almost anything,” I tell them. “All sorts. Horror, romance, literary fiction, mysteries, religion, biography, history, psychology, science writing. Well — I don’t usually read much self-help.” And I laugh a little.

So I didn’t think I would like 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker — it’s part of a genre I don’t enjoy and normally think is too prescriptive (rules for everyone!) when almost everyone can usefully live their own lives without much interference. It had another couple of strikes against it, too. I find books telling me how to declutter and tidy up annoying. (The recent The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is an excellent example of a book I wanted to throw across the room, thereby creating more mess.) Hatmaker also speaks the language of evangelical Christians, which I assumed (snottily enough) that I would find preachy and irritating. I’m a Christian, but from a different tradition. Surely her ideas about excess would not match mine.

Imagine my surprise when I was so engaged in this book that I dropped almost everything for an entire weekend to finish it. This is not a book telling you what you should do. It’s a book telling you what Hatmaker (and sometimes her family and friends along with her) did about their strong sense of global and domestic poverty, and how it affected them, and why. The results are surprisingly funny, moving, unfussy, and self-aware.

Hatmaker, disgusted and shocked by American excess in the face of horrifying and heartbreaking global need, decided to take on a different project of reduction and fasting for each of 7 months. She ate only seven foods for a month: chicken, eggs, spinach, avocado, apples, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat bread. (Olive oil, salt, and pepper were allowed for cooking.) She wore only seven items of clothing for a month: a short-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, tw0 pairs of shoes that counted as one, two pairs of pants, and a dress shirt. This, for someone who has numerous speaking engagements in any given month. (Underwear didn’t count.) During this particular month, she came to terms with the hundreds and hundreds of unworn items in her closet, and gave them away — but knew there was more reduction, learning, and humility to come.

Perhaps the month I was most bemused by — but enjoyed reading about the most — was the month about waste. Hatmaker lives in Austin, Texas, but like many conservative evangelical families, has never seen the need to use the resources available in her community to help the earth. She barely knew what those green bins by her curbside were for. During this month, she made every single possible effort, not only to recycle, not only to compost, but to build a garden in her back yard, partially staffed by formerly homeless families in her community. She learned about why it is important to love the earth, and to use it in a way that sees it as the wonder of creation. She created a family in Austin that worked together to give something back to the environment. This, to me, was the most permanently transformational month for Hatmaker and her family, though other months spoke more to human global need and intercultural humility. We can all do no other than our utmost before our planet.

This book was about far more than organizing your life, or about tidying up. And its language and reach are about far more than a single point of view, whether Christian or not. Hatmaker is funny and wise, humble and kind — but in the end, she is rebelling against the Western way of life that tells us that buying beautiful apothecary jars and bins from the Container Store to put our things in will solve our problems. In fact, this will leave people around the world — and in our own country! — as hungry as they ever were, and as much in need of love as well as food. Only radical change in our own lives will change this. Hatmaker chose the seven places in her own life that she thought were places of excess, from food to media, from the environment to spending — but she doesn’t prescribe that for you. She wants you to think about your own life, your own excess, your own seven. And help solve the problems of the world. Because if she can — and she believes she can — you can, too.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | 15 Comments